We procrastinate because it works

Oct 11, 2023

 Book summary of Neil Fiore’s “The Now Habit.” 

Are you a procrastinator?

Do you have ridiculously long to do list, vague goals? Do you feel unfulfilled, frustrated, depressed, or indecisive? Are you battling low self-esteem, buffering? You’re not alone. I used to identify as a procrastinator. I used to think that I had to have a fire under me, pressure of a deadline. “The Now Habit” by Neil Fiore was a game-changer for me. There were so many aspects that resonated with me, and I could finally see a way to improve my thoughts and make real progress.

What is the problem with procrastination?

We are high achievers, so we usually get things done. But it is a vicious cycle- we feel overwhelmed, then the pressure increases, then fear of failure raises its ugly head. We try harder and white-knuckle through it, but still can’t quite finish it. Then we start back again but feel resentful, then lose motivation. We might complete the project, but we are a resentful, burned-out mess.

The key to why we procrastinate: Procrastination works!

Procrastination saves us from our fears- of pain, criticism, failure, facing our low self-worth, fear of success. At least for the moment. Procrastination itself is not the problem. It is all the fear-mongering that leads to it.

If we don’t turn in a project, we won’t have to face someone’s opinion about it. We have tied our self-worth to the work. If the project fails, then we are a failure.

If we put off a project’s completion, then we won’t have to move on to the next, more complicated, task. The reward for more work being more work, and the goal is likely to be higher and more complicated.

 “The Now Habit” detailed a great visual example of procrastination. Imagine the task of walking across a plank. Going from point A to point B is not a big deal. But if we mentally lift that plank up in our mind that task feels high stakes. If we fall, bad things will happen. So then we put it off. And the only thing that will get us across is a threat- so now create a fire behind us. We have to move across that plank because not moving across the plank is a higher risk. Or maybe we have to have something on the other side like a crying child that needs us. We have to be pulled across. All of these scenarios add stress to a simple move from point A to point B. We procrastinate to avoid the risk, and often a risk we create ourselves. 

His solution to decreasing the stress of the task: putting up a mental safety net. Knowing that even if we fall, we will be safe. No harm will come to us. Will can get up and try again. Another way of saying that we will have our own back. 

Procrastinator vs Producer 

Awareness of how we talk to ourselves is another solution. He outlined the difference in self-talk of the procrastinator vs producer.

A procrastinator would say:

I have to (feeling of stress, victim) or I should (feeling of depression)

I must finish (feeling of overwhelm)

this project is big and important (feeling of overwhelm)

I must be perfect (feeling of condemning, anxiety, critical)

I don’t have time to play (feeling of resentment, deprivation, isolation) 

A producer would say:

I choose to (feeling of empowerment)

When can I start? (feeling of focused- what can I work on now)

I could take one small step (feeling of focused- I can do one thing now)

I could be perfectly human (feeling of acceptance)

I must make time to play (feeling worthy, respect for yourself) 

Guilt Free Play

The key to quality work is guilt-free play. Strategically schedule free time. He noted that in order to be productive, we have to avoid putting off living and engage wholeheartedly with the world around us with recreation, relaxation, connection. Connection is a key to stress resilience. We will build less resentment toward our work if we don’t stop living.

When the result of your task is isolation and deprivation, you are less likely to do it. A solution would be strategic rewards. Making the periods of work shorter, and the rewards frequent and immediate. The goal of these rewards is to be recharged, revitalized, and recommitted to our goals. Another strategy was being pulled towards a goal- something to look forward to- rather than dragged there by shear will.

Overcoming blocks to action

The three blocks to action are: overwhelm, fear of failure, fear of not finishing. These can all be overcome with confidence and specific tools. 

We often feel overwhelmed because we don’t know where to start. Knowing that we can start anywhere is key. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out where to start when we just need to pick a place and run with it. And expect anxiety. Being anxious doesn’t mean we are doing something wrong. Give yourself time to learn. You don’t have to know everything right now. Build in time to learn and reflect. Be happy with where you are. When you start comparing yourself to some idealized future finished project, you may get overwhelmed. In a marathon, you “run the mile you are in.”

The reverse calendar is figuring out your deadline and working backwards to fill in deadlines along the way. Break down the steps, put it on the calendar. That gives goals that are accessible and not overwhelming.

Use worry as a tool. What is the worst thing that could happen? Then strategize a solution to figure how to deal with it. Think of how you would feel, what you could do, what your alternatives are, and think of things you could do to ensure you are successful.

If you are always excited about starting a project, but fizzle out towards the end, you may have “fear of finishing.” Because finishing is putting yourself out there for judgment. Similar to this is the “fear of success.” Once you finish a project, you are likely going to need to do more work, harder work, open to more criticism, things you might not be comfortable doing yet. If you don’t finish the project, then you don’t have to face those fears.

You may have fear of finishing if you find yourself saying:

I need to do more research (procrastination hidden as productivity)

At this rate I’ll never finish (thinking the project will always be as slow as when starting)

I should have started earlier (negative self-talk)

There is only more work after this (fear of success)

It’s not working (assuming the path will be easy without problems)

I only need a little more time (fear of judgment)

The Unschedule 

This is a method of scheduling that lets you know how much time you really have for work. Put your free time in first, guilt free. Then the rest. For me, I put in the call days first. Then the family obligations next. Then growth days (read more below at the link)


When we look at our schedule and see the time that is left after the non-negotiable and important aspects of life, that is when we start getting real about what we can do in a day. 

Short 30 minute bursts of uninterrupted, high-quality work with breaks/rewards can let you get more done with less time. This uses reverse psychology by turning our resistance to structure and authority against itself by giving yourself more free time and short bursts of rewarded work. Record how much you really work (30 minute bursts) and emphasize to yourself how much work you did (pats on the back).

Color-coding your calendar with different activities give you feedback to what activities you spend your time on. You may also note a time in the week when you are less productive, and shift your work accordingly. Before going out or doing something fun, try 30 minutes high quality work. Focus on “starting” and 30 minutes rather than the overwhelming end product like a book or project. Don’t end frustrated; it is worth spending a couple more minutes working through a problem so you leave on a higher note. 

The flow state

Adding meditation and visualization and focus. Adding calm, focused energy. The techniques he describes can help tap into your creative functions of your brain (right hemisphere) as opposed to the critical and logical functions (left hemisphere). The creative functions allow inspiration and flow of ideas. The procrastination mindset with fear of failure and punishment will shut down the creative thinking. Allowing yourself to not be perfect, “this is just a first draft,” will open you up to more freedom. His focus exercises encourage letting go of the past, the future and centering on the present.

Effective work imagery involves imagining where, when and how you will start. For example, “at 3pm I will be at my desk and I will start by writing an outline.” This allows choice, safety, and starting. The next step will be focus.  

Fine tune your progress

Plan for setbacks. Use these as rehearsals to overcome challenges. Use the thought model and realize procrastination is leading you down a path you don’t want to go. Control your self-talk. Resilience is overcoming failure. Getting back on the path. Hardiness is the ability to turn a setback into an opportunity. Practice attitudes of commitment, control and challenge. Concentration involves controlling distractions like strong emotions, warnings of danger, to-do items, escape fantasies, UFOs (unidentified flights of originality). These can be overcome by mental rehearsal and preprogramming. Understand if you are committed to the goal, or just interested. Let go of goals if there is no commitment.

The procrastinators around you

Function as a consultant, not a director. Allow others to problem solve. Invite commitment to a goal rather than compliance with a directed task. Focus on starting a task versus finishing. Combine constructive feedback with praise. State your priorities, and be decisive. Be fair and frequent with rewards.

Want to hear more?

Head to BOSSsurgery.com and download the “How BOSS MDs Rise” summary of “How Women Rise” by Helgeson and Goldsmith

Get the summary here

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